Stanford GSB Essays: Tips & Strategy on Writing What Matters Most

July 27, 2020 | by Matt Symonds

This year’s suite of MBA essays from the Stanford GSB, two required, two optional short-answer, present a formidable exercise in self-awareness – to understand why we do the things we do, why we make certain choices in life, and the opportunities and challenges we face. Take this on as a personal feat, not just a series of MBA essay questions.Any

It’s also worth noting that the word counts are reduced across the board, including the iconic ‘What Matters Most’ essay (now 650 words instead of 750). In introducing not just one but two optional essays, the GSB is inviting you to get more personal in the main essay (A) and avoid sharing about work accomplishments. This essay question makes you stop and think about what it is that makes you who you are, and sets the tone for your overall narrative.

Are the deadlines for your Stanford MBA application looming? Below, you’ll find our team’s tangible guidance on how to tackle each question in the Stanford GSB essays, along with what the Stanford GSB admissions officers are looking for. 

Essay A. “What Matters Most to You and Why” (approx. 650 words)

This notorious question has become emblematic of the Stanford GSB essays, and typically ties applicants in knots as they try to come up with an answer that they hope is clever, striking, or even profound. The school is looking not just for extremely bright and successful individuals, but also people who have strong values and want to have a positive impact in the world. Taking the time to really think about this question provides invaluable insight about your life purpose and values, and the true you that emerges from this introspection helps the GSB to evaluate fit and diversity of contribution to the class.

Stanford suggests aiming to write 650 words, allowing no more than 1,050 words to cover this essay and a second essay question, “Why Stanford?” Maybe you feel that you can answer the first part of the question in one word, with things like love, family or chocolate. But the heart of the question, the part that reveals your life’s calling and uniquely personal journey for getting there, requires deeper introspection. Why does that one thing matter more than any other?

If you’re staring in terror at the blank page, Fortuna’s Tatiana Nemo, a Stanford GSB alum & former MBA admissions interviewer, advises: “Invest time building a timeline of the influences, instances, moments that have shaped you. Dig deep connecting the dots between what has shaped you and who you’ve become. Devote essay A to talk about past and present, and talk about the future in essay B. Both essays need to be coherent and could read as a single story.”

To best tackle the structure of this essay, start with identifying a person, event, or experience that greatly impacted you, and think about the morals, values, and lessons you gained from this experience or interaction. How do you use these lessons today, and how do they impact your drive, your motivation, and your vision of the world? The best Stanford GSB essays that worked in the past delivered a narrative that’s both personal and courageous in answering this question.

Even though you might have to spend hours on this essay through brainstorming, research, talking with others, writing a draft, then another (and then another), just remember that it’s all inside you… it’s your story, and you just have to find it and pull it out.

Kirsten Moss, Stanford GSB’s Assistant Dean of MBA Admissions & Financial Aid, put a fine point on why the GSB has stuck with this question for so long: “One of the things that has been proven over and over in research is that highly inspirational leaders who get the highest level of performance from their organizations really know what drives them, and they are thinking beyond themselves to the problems they can make change and have an impact on,” said Moss to Fortuna’s Matt Symonds at the 2017 CentreCourt MBA Festival in San Francisco. “Taking the time to understand what matters to you will be your true north as a leader, no matter what school you go to, in the rest of your life… You will be one step ahead of the game in terms of being able to motivate others.”

For more guidance on this question, view my analysis in Forbes.

Essay B. “Why Stanford” (approx. 400 words)

If the first essay is about your past and present, the second essay is about your future. In this essay, Stanford asks you to explain your decision to pursue graduate education in management and the distinctive opportunities you will pursue at Stanford. If you hope to create one of the best Stanford MBA essay examples, then your school research really needs to shine. What classes, clubs, events or other elements of the program and community will catalyze the impact you are aiming to make in the short, medium and long term? Dig deep and get specific, show Stanford that you’ve done more than just read about the different programs on the GSB website.

This is also where you should lay out career vision, in a highly focused and concise way. Beyond connecting the dots for your interviewer, you also really need to be specific to you. Fortuna’s Heidi Hillis, Stanford GSB alum and former alumni interviewer, advises her clients: “Look at every sentence and make sure no one else could have said it. Why do YOU need to be a better leader in what way? How is the Stanford MBA and its offerings uniquely positioned to help? Consider specific aspects of your career vision when making the case to Stanford. If you have the room, potentially cite what kind of internship or post-MBA job you’re seeking.”

(Optional) Essay 1. “Think about times you’ve created a positive impact, whether in professional, extracurricular, academic, or other settings. What was your impact? What made it significant to you or to others? You are welcome to share up to three examples.” (200 words for each example)

Introduced for the first time in 2019, this short answer question is a valuable invitation to reveal where you’ve been most impactful with both substance and specificity (you’ll do well not to consider it optional). Behind this question is Stanford GSB’s belief that past behavior is the best predictor of future potential. It’s very likely your examples will appear in other parts of the application: a bullet on the resume, a story used to support the recommendation – even on the application itself, which asks you to talk about your “most significant accomplishment” for each job. The best Stanford GSB essay examples all went DEEPER with this question, and didn’t repeat something that may be found elsewhere. Your responses need to add value to your overall application. They should support the essays and the rest of the application, in highlighting WHY you find each circumstance to be impactful.

Optional essay 2. Tell us about a time within the last three years when your background influenced your participation at work or school. (180 words)
In asking this question, the GSB seeks to uncover the less visible forces that shape candidates’ lives, opportunities, decisions, and achievements. This optional essay is a way for the admissions committee to recognize the challenges – or privileges ­– certain applicants face to get to where they are, even when students themselves may not see them as distinctive or noteworthy. Like the required essays, answering this question in an authentic and compelling way requires a both substantial introspection and self-awareness. It’s a recognition that up and beyond your test scores, college transcripts, and career achievements, prospective students come from different backgrounds that shape both their decisions and actions in invisible ways. Similar to the Berkeley Haas optional essay, which made its debut in 2018, it’s a signal that the GSB wants to support the admissions committee’s decision-making by supplying a full and rich understanding of who each applicant truly is.

This question has always been part of the GSB app, but has been elevated from a field in the app to an optional essay. Think of it as a place to talk about an aspect of your life that hasn’t been addressed anywhere else. The good news is that it can also take a more lighthearted turn, touching on a sport you’re involved in, your side gig in improv comedy, your training as a concert pianist – and how this has shaped how you show up in the workplace.

When you understand and articulate what matters most to you, along with the forces that shape you, you’re claiming a self-awareness and clarity of purpose that set you up for success not just at business school, but also with relationships and career. Stanford wants to know what matters most to you, and so should you.

Want more free advice?

If you haven’t yet seen it, check out our blog comparing deep dive analyses of the HBS & GSB Classes of 2020, or request your copy of the full deep dive reports.

You can also view one of our top resources, the MBA Admissions Essay Masterclass featuring some of the best schools: Stanford GSB, Harvard Business School & Wharton, below.

You can also view all MBA Admissions Essay Masterclasses in our series, featuring insider advice from 14 former gatekeepers from 14 of the world’s top business schools on Fortuna’s YouTube channel.


Fortuna Admissions Co-Founder and Director Matt Symonds is Business education industry expert and columnist for Forbes, The Economist, BusinessWeek, the BBC, among other publications. For more free advice and a personal, candid assessment of your chances, you can sign up now for a free consultation.

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